Lessons from the Fall

(I’m working on a piece about General Convention but it’s not ready to post yet. So in the meantime, here’s something for y’all to chew on.)

The cause of the Roman Empire’s collapse has been variously attributed. Gibbons thought that it had to do in part with the empire’s adoption of Christianity. I just finished a book that argued it had to do with the fundamental need of the Roman economic model to constantly grow, meeting the relatively un-forrested steppes of Eastern Europe. That’s two. There are many others. One of my favorites is that the Roman cavalry was slow to adopt the stirrup.

There’s an essay posted on Peak Oil that argues that the collapse was a result of Roman Society reaching an unsustainable level of complexity. Once the peak had been reached, it took more and more effort to maintain the status-quo, which consumed greater and greater amounts of capital and quickly exhausted the necessary resources required for evolutionary change.

(It seems to me to be analogous to the effect to churches of drawing down endowment principle to balance short term budget deficits. It creates a positive-feedback cycle that quickly exhausts an organizations reserves.

NB: I’m worried, as are some friends of mine, that the Episcopal Church tends to do this in an attempt to be fair rather than in an disciplined attempt to respond strategically.)

From the article on The Oil Drum that discusses the reasons for the Roman Fall:

“So, our Druid had seen the future and was describing it to Emperor Aurelius. He had seen the solution of the problems of Empire: Middle Ages. It was where the Empire was going and where it could not avoid going. What the Druid was proposing was to go there in a controlled way. Ease the transition, don’t fight it! If you know where you are going, you can travel in style and comfort. If you don’t, well, it will be a rough ride.

We may imagine a hypothetical ‘driven transition’ in which the government of the Roman Empire at the time of Marcus Aurelius would have done exactly that: abandon the walls, reduce the number of legions and transform them into city militias, reduce bureaucracy and Imperial expenses, delocalize authority, reduce the strain on agriculture: reforest the land. The transition would not have been traumatic and would have involved a lower loss of complexity: books, skills, works of art and much more could have been saved and passed to future generations.

All that is, of course, pure fantasy. Even for a Roman Emperor, disbanding the legions couldn’t be easy. After all, the name ‘Emperor’ comes from the Latin word ‘imperator’ that simply means ‘commander’. The Roman Emperor was a military commander and the way to be Emperor was to please the legions that the Emperor commanded. A Roman Emperor who threatened to disband the legions wouldn’t have been very popular and, most likely, he was to be a short lived Emperor. So, Emperors couldn’t have done much even if they had understood system dynamics. In practice, they spent most of their time trying to reinforce the army by having as many legions as they could. Emperors, and the whole Roman world, fought as hard as they could to keep the status quo ante , to keep things as they had always been. After the 3rd century crisis, Emperor Diocletian resurrected the Empire transforming it into something that reminds us of the Soviet Union at the time of Breznev. An oppressive dictatorship that included a suffocating bureaucracy, heavy taxes for the citizens, and a heavy military apparatus. It was such a burden for the Empire that it destroyed it utterly in little more than a century.”

Read the full article here.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the past 10 years or so about how the Episcopal Church is seeing the future of some of our depopulating dioceses (especially in Appalachia and the increasingly de-industrialized midwest). We know where we’re heading given the decrease in population in areas that used to be able to support a full-service congregation.

It would be better for us to try to live into the future now, so that we make a relatively painless transition. But instead we seem to be engaged in finger pointing and blame about the causes of the decline and that’s leading us fritter away critical time and resources that will lead to a much more painful transition that is necessary.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 thought on “Lessons from the Fall”

  1. I find this issue frustrating because most of the people talking about the decline of TEC in numbers and budgets are framing the issue in terms of the current controversies rather than any dispassionate analysis of the real issues. In other words, let’s blame it all on +Gene Robinson and the liberals. The typical liberal response is to deny the problem and offer anecdotal evidence that their church or diocese is doing just fine. I think we have gone far enough down this road to see that the problem is real, and is not going away. We are seeing declines among all of the mainline churches and many evangelical denominations as well. Even the Southern Baptists are seeing declines. This is not a liberal / conservative issue, but an issue of how well we are doing our job in a changing world. There is plenty of data out there if we would pay attention to it and analyze it properly. The church needs to move beyond its partisan battles and face this issue head on. Our future depends on it.

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